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Jacob Lawrence

National Portrait Gallery

Jacob Lawrence

National Portrait Gallery
Born Atlantic City, New Jersey

During his lifetime, Jacob Lawrence achieved a level of recognition previously unequaled by an African American artist. In 1941 he exhibited a series of sixty paintings, originally entitled The Migration of the Negro, at Edith Halpert’s prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York City. With the assistance of his future wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence developed a narrative that told the complex history of how and why millions of African Americans moved from the South to the North between the two world wars. Paired with explanatory captions, the paintings attracted wide notice and solidified Lawrence’s reputation for creating multi-picture stories about episodes and individuals in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. In this portrait Lawrence poses in his studio with The Visitors, now in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Nacido en Atlantic City, New Jersey

Jacob Lawrence alcanzó en vida un nivel de popularidad nunca antes visto para un artista afroamericano. En 1941 expuso una serie de sesenta pinturas, titulada inicialmente The Migration of the Negro, en la prestigiosa Downtown Gallery de Edith Halpert en la ciudad de New York. Con ayuda de su futura esposa, la artista Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence desarrolló una narrativa pictórica para representar un complicado tema: cómo y porqué millones de afroamericanos pasaron del sur al norte del país entre las dos guerras mundiales. Acompañadas de notas explicativas, las pinturas atrajeron amplia atención y consolidaron la reputación de Lawrence, también creador de narraciones pictóricas sobre figuras de la historia afroamericana como Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman y John Brown. Lawrence posó para este retrato en su estudio junto a la pintura The Visitors, ahora en la colección del Dallas Museum of Art. En el Smithsonian American Art Museum pueden apreciarse varias obras de Lawrence.

Jacob Lawrence Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery
Jacob Lawrence 1917-2000

Jacob Lawrence, best known for his dynamic depictions of African American life and history, rarely engaged in portraiture. But when he made a self-portrait like this one, he treated his own face like his other subjects-as a basis for inventing expressive abstract shapes. In this drawing, Lawrence concentrated his appearance into a few essential lines and shapes. A black arc describes the shape of his skull, only thinly covered by hair. His shaggy mustache is a complex of wavy lines flanked by heavier curves evoking folds of aging flesh. Lawrence left most of his face white to set off the abstracted black shapes of his nose, eyes, mouth, and mustache. Lawrence poetically combined observation with geometry to reflect both his appearance and his approach to art.

Jacob Lawrence Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery
In about 1965, when Jacob Lawrence began this self-portrait, he had assumed a visibility beyond anything previously accorded to an African American artist. The 1941 exhibition of his epic series of sixty paintings, originally entitled "The Migration of the Negro," had firmly established his reputation. Composition, color, and abstract pattern became the root of Lawrence’s style as he painted the black experience. The human face and figure, normally subject to entrenched artistic conventions, were to him just shapes to be simplified or distorted. With the exception of a small group of self-portraits that he made in the 1960s, Lawrence rarely attempted portraiture. In 1996, he updated this drawing of himself, adding bands of black around the face and changing its contours to a single sweeping curve. Transforming a linear drawing into a muscular interplay of black and white, the likeness reflects both the strength and the anxieties of the artist’s advancing age.

Cuando comenzó este autorretrato, hacia 1965, Jacob Lawrence disfrutaba de una visibilidad nunca antes concedida a un artista afroamericano. En 1941, la exposición de su épica serie de sesenta pinturas titulada "La migración del negro" había cimentado su reputación. La composición, el color y los patrones abstractos constituyeron la base del estilo con que abordó la experiencia del pueblo negro. La cara y la figura humanas, normalmente sujetas a arraigadas convenciones artísticas, eran para él meras formas que simplificaba o distorsionaba. Con excepción de un pequeño grupo de autorretratos que hizo en la década de 1960, Lawrence rara vez abordó el género del retrato. En 1996 actualizó este dibujo de sí mismo con bandas negras alrededor de la cara, convirtiendo los contornos en una amplia curva continua. El dibujo lineal original quedó así transformado en un vigoroso juego de negro y blanco que refleja la fuerza y a la vez las ansiedades del artista ya avanzado en años.

Jacob Lawrence [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Jacob Lawrence, American painter and printmaker, 1917-2000.

Jacob Lawrence [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Jacob Lawrence, American painter and printmaker, 1917-2000.

Jacob Lawrence [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Jacob Lawrence, American painter and printmaker, 1917-2000.

Stahl, Joan, "American Artists in Photographic Portraits from the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection," Mineola, NY: Dover Publications in association with the National Museum of American Art, 1995, fig. 112, pg. 50.

John Jacob Astor [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Park, Lawrence, "Gilbert Stuart: An Illustrated Descriptive List of His Works," New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1926, no. 37.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Brook Collection.

The Life of John Brown, no. 11: John Brown took to guerilla warfare [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 14: John Brown collected money from sympatheizers and friends to carry out his plan [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 7: To the people he found worthy of his trust, he communicated his plans [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 4: His ventures failng him, he accepted poverty [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 2: for 40 years, John Brown reflected on the hopeless and miserable condition of the slave [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 3: John Brown engaged in land speculation and wool merchandising all this to make some money for his greater work which was the abolishment of slavery [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 21: After John Brown's capture he was put to trial for his life in Charles Town, Virginia [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 22: John Brown was found "guilty of treason and murder in the 1st degree. He was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia on December 2, 1859" [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 5: John Brown, while tending his flock in Ohio, first communicated with his sons and daughters his plans of attacking slavery by force [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 6: John Brown formed an organization among the colored people of the Adirondack woods to resist the capture of any fugitive slave [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

The Life of John Brown, no. 13: John Brown, after long meditation, planned to fortify himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Tennesse and there make raids on the surrounding plantations, freeing slaves [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.

Stokely Carmichael

National Portrait Gallery
When Time magazine commissioned Jacob Lawrence to make a cover portrait of Stokely Carmichael in 1966, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was the leading advocate of “black power.” While many artists turned to abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s, Lawrence developed ways to make figuration more powerful. Finding Carmichael “fiery, very active, and very much in command,” he depicted him in overalls, dressed for a voter registration drive, and added a stalking panther. The real impact of the image, however, comes from Carmichael’s large, expressive hand and black, masklike face.

While the angular rhythms, strong colors, and intricate patterns of Lawrence’s highly stylized figures appealed to a formalist art audience, his compelling narrative content, focusing on African American history and universal human struggles, lent an authenticity to portraiture that few could match. Time’s editors, apparently worried about Carmichael’s increasingly militant tone, never published the image.

Wealth Is a Strong Predictor of Whether an Individual Pursues a Creative Profession

Smithsonian Magazine

A sweeping survey of 160 years of U.S. demographic data suggests individuals from wealthy families are more likely to pursue careers in creative fields than those from lower-income households.

As Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economist at the University of Southern Denmark, writes in a recent study, someone whose family has an income of $100,000 is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, Borowiecki posits, every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, makes a person two percent more likely to enter a creative field.

The logic behind this math isn’t hard to comprehend: Moneys Kristen Bahler puts it bluntly, “Devoting yourself to the life of a ‘starving artist’ is a lot less risky if your family has enough money to make sure you don’t actually starve.”

In 2017, The New York Times’ Quoctrung Bui quantified this phenomenon using surveys of individuals in their first decade of adulthood. According to Bui’s report, 53 percent of 20-somethings pursuing careers in art and design receive a financial bump from their parents, as opposed to 47 percent of STEM professionals and, at the other end of the spectrum, 29 percent of those working in farming, construction, retail and personal services. On average, parental assistance received by young creatives totaled $3,600 annually; for those in personal services, this figure was closer to $2,200, while for blue collar and military professionals, it amounted to $1,400.

Major obstacles for individuals in creative fields include high entry costs and low financial return.

“Someone who wants to go into graphic design … requires a fair amount of time to get up to the point where you’re independent,” said Patrick Wightman, a researcher at the University of Arizona, who helped Bui analyze the data. “Someone contemplating that kind of career isn’t going to take that first step unless they know they’re going to have that support to take an unpaid internship. If you don’t have other sources of support, that’s not even an option.”

As Artsy’s Anna Louie Sussman points out, private arts schools charge high tuition and offer fewer scholarships than universities with large endowments. Entry-level jobs, particularly in art hubs like New York City, pay little or, in the case of many internships, nothing.

In January 2016, Ben Davis of artnet News, spurred by an email reminding him of video artist Rachel Rose’s family real estate fortune, wrote an article outlining various creatives’ financial backgrounds. He found, for example, that the late Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist known for her intricate mirrored mosaics, enjoyed what the Financial Times terms a “privileged upbringing” as the child of wealthy merchants whose father was elected to the country’s parliament. Yoko Ono, meanwhile, is the granddaughter of the founder of Japan’s Yasuda Bank, while late multimedia artist Dash Snow hailed from the De Menil family, which New York’s Ariel Levy once likened to “the closest thing to the Medicis in the United States.”

There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern: Jacob Lawrence was a child of the Great Migration tasked with supporting his mother after she lost her job during the Great Depression. A more recent example is photographer and sculptor Zoe Leonard, the daughter of a Polish refugee. As Davis notes, Leonard describes her family as “not even working-class, … just really poor.”

Borowiecki’s research—based on U.S. census data collected between 1850 and 2010—also explores issues such as racial equality and women’s visibility.

When it comes to race, Borowiecki writes “it takes almost a whole century before the first non-whites appear among artists or authors.” That, of course, doesn’t account for certain blind spots; enslaved people weren’t even counted in the earliest U.S. censuses, and who was counted as an artist in historical census data was subjective. “This could be why it looks like there are no black artists or authors until the mid-20th century,” Browiecki notes. In the most recent U.S. census, non-white Americans now account for 20 percent of individuals in artistic fields. The still-limited number of non-white creatives formally counted corresponds with Browiecki’s work, given that race and income are closely tied, with white families having a significantly higher median income than black and Hispanic families.

One surprising takeaway from Browiecki's work is that beginning in 1890, women became increasingly likely to have a career in the arts. Discounting factors including race, location and income, the study notes that being a woman increases the probability of pursuing creative professions by 18 percent. As Borowiecki concludes, “These results challenge the conventional wisdom that the arts are predominantly a male only domain.”

Jesse Jackson

National Portrait Gallery
African American minister Jesse Jackson emerged as one of several influential national civil rights leaders following the assassination of his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968. At the time, he was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the national chairman of Operation Breadbasket, focusing his efforts on the economic empowerment of blacks. In 1970 Time magazine commissioned Jacob Lawrence to paint this cover portrait for an issue devoted to the role of contemporary black leaders in the continuing struggle for equality under the law. The selection of this mainstream African American artist was appropriate. While not known for his work as a portrait painter, part of Lawrence's reputation had come from his dual series of narrative works, produced from 1938 to 1940, illustrating the lives of two major black figures in the nineteenth-century fight for freedom-Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Captain Skinner

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Lawrence was drafted by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1943, but he was encouraged to continue painting by his first commanding officer, Captain J.S. Rosenthal, and later by Captain Charlton Skinner aboard the USS Sea Cloud. Skinner, whose face Lawrence immortalized in this portrait, was familiar with Lawrence’s art career and helped him obtain a rank of petty officer third class in public relations so that he could record with his paintbrush the daily happenings at sea. Initially, Lawrence faced discrimination in the segregated Coast Guard, but later found relief on the Sea Cloud, which was the first integrated ship in the U.S. Navy.

Graphic Masters II: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2009

General Ojukwu

National Portrait Gallery
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